Why Move to 64 Bits? Memory

By Larry Seltzer  |  Posted 2008-09-10 Print this article Print


The main reason it will be worth moving everyone to 64 bits eventually is memory: 32-bit Windows editions top out at about 3GB of system memory. Even if it's theoretically possible for them to address the full 4GB, or even some more than that, as a practical matter it causes compatibility conflicts with certain device drivers, and the decision was made to limit desktop Windows and the cheaper editions of Windows Server. I won't go into the pluses and minuses of this decision, significant though they may be. The fact is that, to get more than about 3.1GB to 3.5GB of usable RAM in a Windows desktop edition, you need to use the 64-bit version.

Already we're at the point with Vista where 2GB to 2.5GB is considered the sweet spot, and there's no reason to build a system with less; memory is that cheap (2GB of Crucial PC5400 667MHz DDR2 at TigerDirect today: $39.99 after rebate). No system I build or recommend from now on will have less than 2GB.

It's also likely that 64-bit versions will be demonstrably faster, even for common desktop scenarios before too long, both for the access to larger blocks of memory and for the optimizations that will come from the larger registers and larger numbers of registers.

I asked Microsoft for comment on this column and got some boilerplate from them:

The 64-bit editions of Windows Vista-on PCs with at least 4GB of memory-can be more responsive when running many programs simultaneously, are highly compatible with the hardware devices and software programs you use today, and are ready for the next generation of 64-bit-optimized programs, which promise dramatic performance and experience improvements.
  • More Responsive When Multitasking-With 64-bit editions of Windows Vista and at least 4GB of memory, your PC can provide a smoother, more responsive experience when running many programs simultaneously.
  • Highly Compatible with Devices and Programs-You will find that most of the hardware devices and software programs you use today will work properly with 64-bit editions of Windows Vista.
  • Ready for 64-Bit-Optimized Programs-With 64-bit editions of Windows Vista and at least 4GB of memory, you're ready for the next generation of 64-bit-optimized programs that will use large amounts of memory to deliver dramatic performance gains and innovative new experiences.
Microsoft has taken the opportunity with the 64-bit editions to introduce new security-related features and to make mandatory some security features that were optional in 32-bit Windows:

At least two of these security features are controversial, although I think all are good ideas.

All this means is that desktop Windows will be in flux for a while. The unkind word would be "unstable," but it doesn't have to be an unpleasant outlook. Sometimes periods of rapid change can be exciting. We very well may end up, when the world has moved to 64-bit Windows, with a better, faster, safer environment, purged of some of the worst mistakes of the past. That's the happy version.

In the unhappy version, users are angry as underpowered systems with inadequate memory for a real 64-bit OS run badly because hardware vendors don't take 64-bit device driver development seriously, while 64-bit application development still lags and there still isn't a Flash player that will work on 64-bit Windows. Oh, and researchers discover new and innovative attacks on 64-bit modes that had been previously unexplored.

That's progress for you.

Security Center Editor Larry Seltzer has worked in and written about the computer industry since 1983.

For insights on security coverage around the Web, take a look at eWEEK.com Security Center Editor Larry Seltzer's blog Cheap Hack.

Larry Seltzer has been writing software for and English about computers ever since—,much to his own amazement—,he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1983.

He was one of the authors of NPL and NPL-R, fourth-generation languages for microcomputers by the now-defunct DeskTop Software Corporation. (Larry is sad to find absolutely no hits on any of these +products on Google.) His work at Desktop Software included programming the UCSD p-System, a virtual machine-based operating system with portable binaries that pre-dated Java by more than 10 years.

For several years, he wrote corporate software for Mathematica Policy Research (they're still in business!) and Chase Econometrics (not so lucky) before being forcibly thrown into the consulting market. He bummed around the Philadelphia consulting and contract-programming scenes for a year or two before taking a job at NSTL (National Software Testing Labs) developing product tests and managing contract testing for the computer industry, governments and publication.

In 1991 Larry moved to Massachusetts to become Technical Director of PC Week Labs (now eWeek Labs). He moved within Ziff Davis to New York in 1994 to run testing at Windows Sources. In 1995, he became Technical Director for Internet product testing at PC Magazine and stayed there till 1998.

Since then, he has been writing for numerous other publications, including Fortune Small Business, Windows 2000 Magazine (now Windows and .NET Magazine), ZDNet and Sam Whitmore's Media Survey.

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